How movie subtitles help us learn a new language, and to experience new cultures.
I’m not exactly a movie buff, even though I do enjoy watching a good film or a mindless action flick every now and then. However, I’m an absolute animation nut. As far as entertainment and art goes, it is definitely my favorite medium.
Now, even though when thinking of animated content the first thought is usually Hollywood (cough-”Disney”-cough…), there is very much to say about the quality of animation produced in other countries. Places like France, Japan and more recently Ireland and Spain have produced incredible gems of animation that we would be remiss not to consider and enjoy simply because they are not in English. To truly enjoy these masterpieces, it is imperative to do it in their native languages.
This means reading subtitles.
Reading is one of the four main skills required to master any language. In my opinion, reading is the most important one: within each book we read, there is an enjoyable, pressure-free lesson in practical grammar, vocabulary and common phrases, all packaged in an interesting story of our liking. Writers are professional users of language, after all, and we could do a lot worse than learning from the experts.
However, a film, and animation in particular, is a primarily visual and aural experience. Very often, and I have heard this quite a lot, people will reject a movie in its original language outright because they feel forced to draw away their attention from the action and the visual storytelling in order to read the dialogue. This is especially true in some European countries, where until recently it was required by law to translate the soundtrack of the film to the local language, and thus the populace has gotten used to watching and listening to their favorite movies in their native tongue.
Some movies, in my humble opinion, are frankly ruined by translation. Voice acting is a career as complicated as any in the entertainment industry, and results are very varied. For best results, I recommend to always choose the original language.
Which brings us back to subtitles. The second most common complaint I hear is that the subtitles go by too fast. Cue in “Reading is hard…. :(” in whiny tones.
As a learning exercise, watching films in their native language while reading subtitles holds a dual benefit: First, if the subtitles are in the same language as the movie we are currently watching, it will help improving listening comprehension tremendously (I seriously discourage watching films without subtitles in their native language unless you are a native speaker, or you are at least a C1 level at it…). Second, for the films in languages we are not interested in learning, they will help us improve our reading speed and comprehension as we make a conscious effort to quickly read the text and not miss out on the action on screen. In my opinion, a win-win situation for learning purposes.
So give it a try! See for yourself what all the fuzz is about and watch a foreign film! Don’t hate on subtitles, embrace them both as a learning experience and a chance to take a trip into another culture, from the comfort of your own home.